In his 1942 text, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, the artist announced his intention to rescue art from the aimlessness of a war-prostrated Europe and the aesthetic decay of avant-garde art by returning to the academicism of the Renaissance masters. This announcement (which is frequently taken at face value) has been interpreted and critiqued as an underlying conservatism, even though the visual and textual works of his later career frequently cast doubt on the authenticity of his project. In this article it is shown that his new artistic orientation served mainly his own subjective concerns, and that his defence of ‘classical’ painting was neither particularly earnest nor consistent. His continuing preoccupation with paradox and recourse to sexual and perverse iconography in his visual works of the 1940s and beyond (such as 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, 1948) suggest his classicism was not truly in rupture with the avant-gardism of his early career. As evidence of this, I examine his appropriation of the Freudian concept of ‘sublimation’, which seemingly underpins his campaign for a return to classical art, only to be negated by paintings and utterances of a lewd and provocative nature more redolent of his days as a surrealist. I attribute this self-contradiction to his playful and showmanly nature which evades any notion of an ‘essential’ Dalí.